Favorite good (or bad?) examples of “operationalizing” vague ecological concepts?

“Operationalization” is the term for taking a concept that’s vague or abstract and making it more precise and concrete, so that it can be put to practical use. Like many scientific and social scientific fields that aren’t physics or chemistry, ecology has many concepts that are only vaguely defined, or at least were only vaguely defined when they were first proposed. “Niche” is an infamous example. Or think of how one response to my critique of the intermediate disturbance hypothesis was to question whether the ideas I was critiquing were “really” part of the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, properly defined. Few big ideas are born fully formed, so most new ideas have to go through some refinement and elaboration to make them operational

Sometimes, the process of operationalization is successful, meaning that eventually everyone agrees on the definition of the concept and can go out and apply it. For instance, everybody agrees what “gross primary productivity” is. There might be practical obstacles to measuring it in any particular case, and different ways of measuring it might be prone to different sorts of errors. But those are practical obstacles, not conceptual ones.

But sometimes, the process of operationalization fails.

Continue reading

All my anxieties about my book, and how I’m dealing with them

I’m writing a book about ecology. It’s early days. So my enthusiasm for the project remains high, but so does my anxiety that I can pull it off. It’s not paralyzing anxiety–most days, I don’t worry about the book at all. I’m too absorbed in working on it, or on whatever other task commands my attention that day. But it’s there.

I’m dealing with that anxiety by identifying specific things I’m anxious about, and addressing them. So here’s a list of all my worries about my book, along with how I’m dealing with them. This is mostly for my own reference, but maybe it will help someone out there to know that even tenured full professors sometimes worry if they’re up to (some aspect of) the job.

Continue reading

Thoughts on the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Award

Earlier this year I had the privilege of serving on the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hill Young Investigator Award (YIA) committee, along with Rebecca Safran (Chair) and Luke Harmon. The award goes to investigators less than 3 years post-Ph.D., or in the final year of their Ph.D., for promising, outstanding research in any field covered by the ASN. Four awards are given annually. The award is in memory of Jasper Loftus-Hill, a promising young scientist who died tragically 3 years after receiving his Ph.D.

First of all, congratulations to the winners: Anna Hargreaves, Sarah Fitzpatrick, Alison Wright, and Martha Muñoz. We had 25 applicants (15 women, 10 men), all of them excellent, so we had some difficult decisions to make. In the end, the committee came to a consensus and the four winners rose to the top. It’s great that the ASN recognizes not just one but four outstanding young researchers, and rewards them with a high-profile opportunity to present their work in the YIA symposium at the next ASN meeting. The Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Award has a proud record of highlighting researchers who go on to become international leaders in their fields, and I’m confident that record will continue.

I believe this is the first time all four awards have gone to women. That wasn’t a deliberate choice on the committee’s part; it reflects the many strong women applicants in this year’s applicant pool. But nevertheless, I think it’s a nice marker of how the fields of ecology, evolution, and behavior have changed over the decades. Over the last few years, the award has gone to a fairly balanced mix of men and women, having tended to go mostly to men before that. The awards committee takes equity seriously and does everything it can to make sure that the applicant pool and the awardees reflect the diversity of the ASN membership, though the gender mix of applicants and awardees inevitably will bounce around from year to year.

The awards committee wants the awardees to reflect the diversity of the ASN membership not just in terms of gender, but in terms of research topic. One thing that struck me about both last year’s applicant pool and this year’s was the predominance of evolutionary work. Some applicants work at the interface of evolutionary biology and other fields, but only a small minority of applicants do “pure” ecology or behavior. And within evolutionary biology, applicants working on sexual selection and sexual conflict predominate over applicants working on other topics. Next year I’ll be taking over as chair of the YIA committee, and my goal as chair is to increase the diversity of fields and research topics in the applicant pool. Which will mean increasing the size of the applicant pool, since obviously we don’t want to discourage the many excellent applicants working on sexual selection and sexual conflict! So if you work on ecology, behavior, or some evolutionary topic that hasn’t been much represented among the awardees lately, please do apply next year—we’d very much like to see more folks like you in the applicant pool!

Here’s the draft introduction to my book about ecology. Please tear it apart. (UPDATED)

If you’re a very avid reader of this blog, you need to get a life will know that I’m writing a book about ecology. It’s for University of Chicago Press. The working title is “Ecology At Work”, though that’s only one of several candidate titles. Other candidate titles include “Ecology Master Class”, “Re-engineering Ecology”, and the joke titles that I and others tweeted recently.

Anyway, I’m very excited by this new challenge I’ve set myself, and also very nervous that I can pull it off. Which is where you come in. Below the fold is a draft introduction to my book. Please tear it apart.

Ok, don’t just tear it apart; any and all feedback is most welcome. But critical feedback and suggestions for improvement are particularly welcome. If you think the style sucks, or that the book sounds boring, or whatever, you are not doing me any favors unless you tell me that!

Feel free as well to ask me questions about the book, suggest things I should read, etc.

I’ll of course be getting feedback from more traditional sources as well. But every little helps.

Since many readers prefer not to comment, at the end there’s a little poll for you to tell me what you thought.

UPDATE: The comments have already given me some good feedback: it’s not as clear as it should be up front what the book is about and who the target audience is. And for some readers it’s still not totally clear even by the end. So: the book will comprise comparative case studies of what works and what doesn’t in ecological research. It’s not an introductory ecology textbook, it’s not a methods handbook, and it’s not an “ecology grad student skills” manual like How To Do Ecology. If you think of it as “kind of like A Critique For Ecology, but with lots of positive bits to go along with the critical bits and without a single narrow prescription for how to do ecology properly”, you won’t be too far off. The target audience is ecologists and ecology grad students interested in fundamental research.

Continue reading

Apply for NextProf Science 2017 at UMich!

Applicants are currently being sought for NextProf Science, a workshop aimed at future faculty (advanced doctoral students or postdoctoral fellows) who are interested in an academic career in science and who have demonstrated a commitment to diversity. The workshop is May 2-5, 2017 in Ann Arbor, MI.

At NextProf Science, participants learn:

  • how the faculty search process works
  • how to build successful research programs
  • how to form a teaching and mentoring philosophy
  • why a network is important

The NextProf Science 2017 workshop is free to participants, who must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Underrepresented minorities and women are especially encouraged to apply. Travel, lodging, and meals will be covered by the program.

Applicants may nominate themselves or be nominated by a faculty mentor. Find additional information about the workshop and application materials on the NextProf Science website at: sites.lsa.umich.edu/nextprof-science/

The deadline to receive all applications and supporting materials is: February 15, 2017.

What factors influence whether “Professors on Parade” courses are useful?

Last week, I did a poll asking about readers’ experiences with courses where faculty (and/or grad students and/or folks outside academia) meet with students in a format that is often called “professors on parade” (because lots of faculty rotate through the course during the semester). I was curious to know whether people find these courses useful, and whether they like certain styles of them more than others.

tl;dr: Most people seem to find these courses useful, but a substantial minority do not. People seem to find these courses especially useful if they include presenters who come from outside academia, discussion of classic or important papers, and/or discussion of papers by department faculty. They seem to find them less useful if they include basic research skills (such as how to extract DNA), though that comes with the caveat that only 5 respondents were involved in that sort of course. (There were 100 respondents total, though 2 didn’t answer the last question about whether they found the course useful.)

More results below the break.

Continue reading